Ranch stories with Alan Cooper

A transcript of Episodes 130 and 131 of UX Podcast. James Royal-Lawson and Per Axbom through the story of his ranch, reflect with Alan Cooper on the tech and design industry and where we are heading.

Featured imaged used with permission from UXLx

Transcript, part 1

Alan: I can talk about anything you want to talk about and I can talk about things you don’t want to talk about. I probably will. That’s what I do. Are you recording? You are recording. OK.

James: Hello and welcome to UX Podcast, balancing business, technology and users every other Friday from Stockholm, Sweden. I’m James Royal-Lawson.

Per: And I am Per Axbom and today we’re bringing you our interview with Alan Cooper, the first part of a two-part interview. Alan Cooper, for those of you who don’t know, he actually started out as a software developer in the 1960s and 70s. He’s like the “Father of Visual Basic” which means he wrote the software that other people are writing software with.

But then he went on to try and figure out who he was building for and he authored some of the most notable books in our industry like About Face and The Inmates are Running the Asylum, subtitled Why High-Tech Products Driver Us Crazy and How to Restore the Sanity. He founded Cooper, which is a leading interaction design consultancy and he created the goal-directed design methodology. I mean he’s a legend in our industry. He’s a legend. But he gave this talk at UXLx.

James: Yeah. Alan hasn’t done much public speaking during the last five years. Together with his wife Susan, they’ve been pulling back from the day to day operations of Cooper and bought a farm in California called Monkey Ranch.

Per: And his closing keynote at UX Lisbon was called “Ranch Stories” and we were taken on a journey through those five years of running a farm and how Alan had realised that those lessons of farming had parallels with our world of design.

James: Yeah, and Alan’s speech, it was his “I have a dream” speech and received a standing ovation lasting a couple of minutes from the 500 UXers that were in the audiences in Lisbon that day.

Per: Yeah.

James: Well, Alan had sat down to talk to us in room four the day after his talk and in this part one of our conversation, we get the back story on how the presentation came about before he leads us into the harm lack of control mechanisms in business can potentially cause.

Per: Let’s listen to Alan Cooper.


James: How does it feel today? You must have been getting a lot of positive energy from people after your talk yesterday. How has that felt?

Alan: You have to understand that I’ve been kind of conscientiously withdrawing from the public eye and so for the last half dozen years, I’ve really been saying no to speaking engagements and it’s — the business world is changing. I was dissatisfied with it. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I was going to retire and then I go, well, you know, maybe that’s not going to happen.

I realised that I really needed to — I’ve been telling people at the company at Cooper this is where we have to go. You guys do it and it has become clear that the kind of attention-getting and vision-setting that needs to be done is not something I’m going to be able to successfully delegate. I mean there are a lot of intelligent, capable people at Cooper. But that’s the role that belongs to me and so with some kind of resignation, I said, well, I really need to get out and really start waving the flag in the public again.

James: Yeah. Once you’re a thinker, you don’t stop thinking.

Alan: Yeah, yeah. I mean the transition is the hard part. Doing it is kind of fun actually. But I have to say that six months ago, Bruno, like he does every year, he says, “Will you come to UXLx?” and I’ve been saying no. I finally said, “OK, I’m going to do this.” But I knew that what I was going to do was I was going to talk about ethics and so I started a talk on ethics and it was boring as shit.

I hated it and then I said, “You know, how am I going to do this?” and it really was a problem and then I kind of came up with this idea that I was going to talk about the things I learned on the ranch as just talk about the food system. Then my wife came to me and she said, “Nobody gives a shit about food.” This is about the user interaction designers. Why are you going to go and harangue them about food?

James: Let me tell you. Alan Cooper walks in and starts babbling about his farm.

Alan: So it was like a whole other presentation. I had a bunch of pages of notes and just like trashed that. I just went round and round and so a couple of months ago, I ended up — I put together this presentation and it was basically — it was like we’re all doomed. The world is trashed and I kind of did a mock-up presentation of some of the people at the — some of my colleagues at Cooper and they listened patiently. It was like watching a train wreck and they said, “Well, don’t give up, Alan.”


Alan: Oh my god. So I ended up writing and rewriting this thing a half dozen times and throwing out probably at least a hundred pages of notes and text. I do two kinds of presentations. I do the live extemporaneous ones like everybody else did, which is where you have a — you have 30 slides and each one has a topic and you put the slide up and then you talk about it for a minute.

I’ve done a million presentations like that and I could do that. In fact, in the middle of this whole ordeal of trying to put this talk together, I came up with a talk, a whole new talk. It’s called “Delivering Delight” and I delivered it in Aarhus two weeks ago. It was a huge hit. It was a very successful talk in Denmark at intranet week Denmark.

But it was just talking about the practice of design really. But I really wanted this to be a more serious thing and then slowly, painstakingly, it was not easy for me to find this. I began to see that it was the interweaving of these two stories about the fact that we — in Silicon Valley, it’s so easy for us to say, “Hey, I’ve got a job. I’m doing interaction design. I’m working on this start-up and we’re making this software,” and not thinking about the bigger implications of the fact that most of the software that people were working on is making — is allowing people who aren’t our friends to extract money out of our collective pockets, while not improving the world.

It’s like Uber. It’s a fabulous thing. Uber is a client of Cooper’s. I love Uber. I’m a total convert. The taxi system in San Francisco has been miserable since forever.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: And Uber has given it the swift kick in the ass that it needs. But the fact is, is that the taxi system, while all shitty, it at least is not abusive of our society.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: And Uber is coming in and taking over but there’s no restraint. So it’s being a good neighbour, reasonably good neighbour now because it’s trying to win its place. OK? But as soon as it destroys the taxi infrastructure, which it will within the next two years, then it’s going to turn around and say, “Ah, we don’t really have any competition. We own transit in San Francisco. We can do what we want,” and they start tightening the screws because that’s what business does and all of a sudden it’s going to turn out that they’re not our friends.

Right now I love it because I can go anywhere I want fast, easy, cheap, convenient. It’s wonderful.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: OK? But it’s like dating somebody and thinking they’re wonderful and then getting married to them and the day after the wedding, I smack around.

So I’m not saying that Uber is going to do that. What I’m saying is there’s no structural restraint against Uber for doing that. Will they do it? I don’t know. But what I’m saying is it’s our responsibility is the people who — we are the ones who are designing and developing and deploying Uber-like software and its brethren. What we have to do is we have to do something about it.

So, that was how this talk came about. But as I put the talk together, it began to scare me because number one, there’s not a lot in it about interaction design. Number two, I can’t really stand up and say, “There’s the enemy.” I can’t stand up. I mean I can’t criticise Uber. I mean they’re our client and I’m in business.

They’re one of my clients and I want them to come back and hire me some more. So I can’t say they’re bad. You can’t do that in the business world. What I want to say is I want us to be responsible together to create a better world. I have to say that I didn’t really know how that talk would go over. I have to say that I was fully prepared for — at the end of that talk yesterday for people to just be disgusted and they say, “Why didn’t Alan talk about design?” and I’ve just signed on to do a couple of other talks and I’ve said to them — they’ve said, “What’s your topic?” and I said, “Well, I want to talk about ranch stories.” But I’m prepared to call them up and say, “Wait a minute! I want to do Delivering Delight instead,” because that’s the safe choice, you see.

This was the test and I wasn’t sure really how it went over until the end and I — it was — I was pretty bowled over by the reaction to see everybody stand up and clap. I mean I was about halfway through the talk. I kind of went, OK, this is not a flop. OK.

James: People aren’t leaving. They’re not walking out.

Alan: That’s right. I realised, OK, I’m not failing. That’s good. But I had no idea that I was gripping people’s hearts until the end.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: And then it was really …

Per: People weren’t only standing up. They had tears in their eyes. I did, yeah.

Alan: Yeah. I know. And so there are so many lessons there. It’s that I was scared. I knew I was overreaching.

Per: You went out of your comfort zone.

Alan: Yeah. I went out of my comfort zone. I knew I was — and you got to understand. I learned a long time ago. I never throw anything away. I always — because it’s — as an author, you have to kill your babies. That’s what you have to do. You have to cut out the stuff that’s brilliant. I write these paragraphs and I look at them and go, “That’s the best paragraph that has ever been written.” But if you leave it in, it ruins your work. So you have to delete it.

James: Yeah.

Alan: But I hate deleting that. I can’t do it. So what I — I learned this in my first book 25 years ago is what you do is you create a file called “the cutting room floor,” or something like that or bits and pieces or something. I had a file called — what was it? “Advice for Young Designers,” and so I would cut those beautiful paragraphs out and paste it into “Advice for Young Designers”.

That file is hundreds of pages long. It’s filled with these invective and — but you have to take it out. So that’s all the acid. That’s the bile because there’s a lot of anger and frustration and slowly you distil. It’s like raw wine. It’s like Calvados. It’s the raw shit at the bottom of the barrel. But out of that comes something else. Before, I’ve said it — it’s part of giving a good talk is clearing your throat. You need to do that before you get on stage.

James: Yeah.

Alan: So there was a lot of that because part of it was — it was really a new topic, a new point of view, a new attitude and it was a bitch. So I just started a new blog a few months ago and I said I’m going to write something once a week. When I started working on this talk in Earnest about 2.5 months ago, I stopped writing for the blog. So I’ve had this big woodworking project going in my shop. I’ve been making the sideboard with these drawers and cabinets. Really beautiful. Made out of walnut that is harvested from a walnut tree that we cut down on the property.

James: Oh, lovely.

Per: Wow.

Alan: And I stopped to work on it. All I’ve been doing for the last 2.5 months is sitting in front of my computer wrestling with this freaking talk and the “Delivering Delight” thing was a safety valve.

James: Yeah.

Alan: You know? And so all of that sweat has been vindicated by what happened here yesterday and I’m just as surprised as anybody. I mean people were going to say what’s Cooper going to talk about, sheep? but it worked. I mean it totally, totally worked and in order to make a talk like this, I knew that I couldn’t just get up and talk extemporaneously because I would go down rat holes. I would — I knew it had to be a written piece and that’s why I read it. I know that when — everybody loves it when you get up and you talk and when you read. There’s always somebody in the audience who go, “Well, why should I come all the way to Lisbon to hear Cooper read something? I can read it on the web.”

James: Yeah, because you started in the middle of the stage and was kind of — you were joking with us and warming us up I guess and walked back over to the podium. Oh, I’m just going to read this. Oh, this is interesting.

Per: I have to admit, as you were staying there, even — ranch stories? What’s this going to be? We had no idea what was coming. Really no idea. So it was also — I mean it was only like 10 minutes in. You were realising, oh my god, this is so good. It took a while.

Alan: Well, I mean the — and thank you. Thank you because as a writer and as a speaker, what you get to do is you get to tell a story and I love that. I love to tell a story. I love to say, “Come on this trip with me.” People say, “What should we do?” as their way of saying, “Here’s what I want to do.” It’s very frustrating to me.

James: A loaded statement, a loaded question, yeah.

Alan: Yeah. And so what I love is when somebody takes me on a journey and so — and that was the idea behind this is I want to say, “Let me tell you about my neighbour. Let me tell you about this young girl who has been a farmer on the property and let me tell you about this guy who takes care of the sheep,” with the idea that slowly the image will form in your head. That’s the image that’s formed in my head. So you not only — instead of me coming to you and saying, “Here’s what I know,” I come to you and say, “Let me show you. Let me take you down the same path of learning that I’ve been down …”

James: Yeah. We have to relive in part in brief the past five years when you’ve been building up Monkey Ranch.

Alan: Exactly, exactly. And so thank you, that that worked, because that’s — I mean I will tweak this talk. I mean I think there are places where I can make it stronger and places where I can tune it, fine-tune it. But the idea is that — as I started to say is — there’s so much wisdom that comes from comparing these completely disparate fields. It’s when you look at one field through the lens of another field. There’s so much to be learned and it’s so interesting to go out into the country. I mean my neighbours, like Mark, has up until — about four, five months ago when I helped to hook him up with my internet provider. He had dial-up connectivity only.

His email address is “markandcindy” because he shares an email account with his wife. So he’s just — these are not connected people.

James: They’re at the beginning of the digital journey.

Alan: Yeah, yeah. And their value system is so different. But it’s really interesting. Monkey Ranch after escrow closed and we owned Monkey Ranch, the real estate agent said that he had shown our ranch to several buyers from the city and there’s a road that goes right through the middle of it. It’s a dirt road and it leaves the county road, the paved road, and it runs — oh, it’s like about a thousand meters across the property and then it makes a right hand turn and it goes for another probably 5000 meters down that way and there are three ranches and eight families who live on that road.

So those eight families and all of their deliveries and business associates and their farms — sometimes the deliveries are a giant truck full of shit.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: And they have to go across our road and that road runs right in front of our house. And the real estate agent said as soon as the people from the city saw that — they said, “Why are there people on my driveway?” and the agent had to explain. Well, they have an easement. They have the right to drive on this road to get to their property. I said I’m not interested. I don’t want these people driving on my property.

Per: OK.

Alan: So when I heard that there was an easement and there were — people had to drive on it, I said, “This is great! I’m not going to be a hermit. I’m not going to move to the country to an isolated house and then live all alone and breathe my own exhaust.”

James: You’re not going to build those kind of giant brick walls around your …

Alan: Exactly, exactly. And I said they have an easement to drive on my property. It’s my property. They have a legal right to drive on it but it’s mine. OK? So I said, “I get to walk out into the middle of the road and stand there and stop them, and they have to talk to me,” and I did and they did.

Per: Yeah.

Alan: That’s how I got to know my neighbours.

James: You can see these delivery guys and they pull out the schedule for the day and he goes — you know, whatever …


James: … we’ve got to drive through Monkey Ranch …

Per: He’s going to be standing there.

James: I’m going to call in sick.

Alan: It got to that point because my neighbours, they go, “I need to get to work,” and I’m still standing. I said, “Well, what do you think about the weather and what about these sheep?” So it’s funny. They got to know that Alan would be happily standing out or standing there talking with them.

One of the guys is — he lives directly opposite the county road from us and he has got a big ranch and a bunch of cows and every day, he goes back and forth between his property and between his — where he lives and his property where his cattle are.

So early in the morning, he goes by on a little four-wheel cycle and he goes by and he just takes his rounds. He looks to see if there are any sick cows. Do they need any food? Do they need any water? Is anything broken? It’s a ranch. You never know what’s wrong. Is a fence down or something? And then he goes back and then he comes back in his pick-up truck.

Only this time he has got some bales of hay in the back or he has got some tools, whatever he needs, and he comes back and he works and then he goes back and then later on, he will come by and he has got all these different vehicles because all these ranchers have different vehicles and he will go by in a different truck. He goes to pick up some eggs or something and — but he always — I told him the other day. I said, “You know? You always go by an even number of times. You always go eight or ten times a day. Never seven or nine.” He laughed. He hadn’t thought of that. So this is the kind of crazy stuff we talk about.

So yeah, and so we do these things we call “monkey movies”. We took one of the big barns and the one that we converted into a big workshop for me. Well, it’s also — I have all the woodworking tools on wheels. So I can roll them off to one side and I push a little button and the movie screen comes down. I have a projector bolted to the ceiling and then I have a bunch of couches. Everything is on wheels. So I have some big, soft couches on wheels. We roll them out in the middle of the floor and I pop popcorn and we sit there with beer and popcorn and watch movies on Friday nights.

Per: Oh, fantastic.

Alan: We call them “monkey movies” and so the neighbours come over and it’s great.

Per: Yeah. So …

Alan: I have no idea why I’m talking about that.

Per: But you mentioned in you talk. You didn’t want to point out an enemy. But in my mind, sort of the enemy is ourselves.

James: Yeah.

Per: And that’s the thing. What I took from your talk was that it is my responsibility to be the change that I want to see happen.

Alan: It has to be. I mean that’s the point. You see, here’s the conundrum. Corporations are not human and yet corporations are entities. They’re autonomous entities. They’re things that can steer themselves. But they’re not humans. What happens is we make a mistake of interpolating an autonomous thing as a human thing. It’s an anthromorphization. So what we do is we go, “Oh, the corporation is made of people. Therefore the corporation will take care of the people.” But it won’t.

So if you — what is — there are human beings who have no conscience. They’re called sociopaths. They will kill you and they won’t care. OK? They’re damaged, bad people and what we do is we protect ourselves as a society against sociopaths because they’re the worst kind of a person. They’re the kind of a person who has no internal restraint. That’s the definition of a corporation. It’s an autonomous entity like a human but it has no conscience. It has no internal restraint.

So it’s the worst kind of a being. It’s something that in a human, we would protect ourselves against. But the problem is, is that what we do is we elevate these corporations. We give them more power. We say, “Go ahead. Choose the direction we’re going to go,” and the direction that they want to go is to get all the stuff that’s good for them and screw everybody else.

So in a civil society, if you’re going to allow corporations to exist, you have to have counterbalancing regulation. You have to have collective restraints on the behaviour of corporations.

Now, I grew up in the United States in the 60s and the 70s. So it never occurred to me that this was the case because there was a lot of regulation and it kept the corporations in check. And unions were reasonably strong and so it seemed like it was — it seemed like the balance was kind of the natural order of things. I didn’t — this is how humans think is what is, is normal. It was balanced and so I thought that was normal.

I was one of the guys who — just like so many people of my age, I’m a baby boomer. You know, kind of went, “Well, we can relieve these protections. They’re not needed.” I mean I wasn’t proactively removing the protections but I was — I saw Ronald Reagan and George Bush and George Bush and said, “What’s the harm there?” The harm has become very clear.


Per: So Alan’s talk was really not what anyone was expecting. It was not even what anyone was asking for. But obviously it was what everyone wanted.

James: Yeah. I think that’s a pretty good way of describing that.

Per: So Alan actually did manage to, in the end, put something out there that was — well, as you had mentioned in our intro, it was — we got a standing ovation or he got a standing ovation or minutes. It was fantastic. Afterwards, we actually — we talked to Sue, his wife.

James: Yeah, we went up to Susan. Actually, to book at the time …

Per: To do the interview.

James: To do the interview the day after. But Susan, she — Sue was saying to us that — I mean he has put three or four months of work into this speech and a lot of iterations as Alan mentioned in the first part of the interview. But what she told us was he basically said that if this didn’t go down well, he wasn’t going to speak again.

Per: Yeah.

James: This was the speech.

Per: There was a lot running on this speech.

James: Yeah. He reiterated it so much and this was do or die and she said she was just so pleased for Alan that we did all stand up and applaud like that, that this had — actually this has hit a nerve. It touched us and made us reflect on what we were doing.

Per: It was the story he wanted it to be.

James: Yeah. Coming up in part two of our interview with Alan Cooper, Alan digs deeper into that question of what happens or the problem with the lack of control mechanisms and we also get into — deeper into capitalism, entrepreneurship and the role of philanthropy.

Per: Yeah. And as he said on Twitter, this is where he spilled his guts.

James: He does.

Per: Remember to keep moving.

James: See you on the other side.


Transcript, part 2

Per: Hello to you. This is UX Podcast hosted by me, Per Axbom.

James: And me, James Royal-Lawson.

Per: We are balancing business, technology and users every other Friday from Stockholm, Sweden.

James: In part 1 of our two-part interview of Alan Cooper, he gave the back story surrounding his UX Lisbon 2016 keynote, closing keynote before leading us into a conversation about enterprise and business and how lack of control mechanisms can lead to harm, social harm, community harm.

Per: And in this part 2, he digs deeper into that question like that lack of control mechanisms that corporation have. We look at capitalism, entrepreneurship, the role of philanthropy. We also talked about what we as designers can do with the power that we have at our disposal.

Alan: In a civil society, if you’re going to allow corporations to exist, you have to have counter balancing regulation. You have to have collective restraint on the behavior of corporations. I grew up in the United States in the ’60s, in the ’70s. And so, it never occurred to me that this was the case because there was a lot of regulation and it kept the corporations in check. And unions were reasonably strong. And so, it seemed like it was — it seemed like the balance was kind of the natural order of things. I didn’t — this is how you lose things because it is, is normal and it was balanced. And so I thought that was normal.

I was one of the guys who just like so many people of my age, I’m a baby boomer, kind of went, “Well, we can relieve these protections. They’re not needed.” I mean I wasn’t proactively removing the protections but I was — I saw Ronald Reagan and George Bush and George Bush and said what’s the harm there?

But the harms become very clear. And so what’s happened today is I created — I was an entrepreneur before I knew the word. I started my own company and my first company in 1976. It was a couple of years before I ever heard that word entrepreneur. And it was also a couple of years before I ever heard the word venture capitalist. I was just building software. That was — I was an innocent.

But what we’ve done and I was able to build a company with essentially no capital because it was so inexpensive to buy one of these new computers and all you had to do was write some code and then you could sell it. It was possible to start a business with essentially no capital. This to me was hugely liberating. It’s only now becoming clear that what this whole entrepreneurial thing was, was an accelerated path around the collective restraint on the behavior of corporations.

So going back to Uber, if you’ll pardon me for picking on Uber, is it’s one of those companies that it was really inexpensive to start. And the money that was pumped into it was not to start it but was to grow it. And what it has done is it was able to disrupt the personal transit industry by going around those restraints. But once it goes around them and becomes hugely successful, now it’s just a corporation that is without restraints. And so here, we all are and I’ve been a participant in this wonderful world of software entrepreneurs for 40 years now.

And one of the side effects of what we’ve done, I have built great things. But I find that I have also built terrible things. I have built — I mean my work in visual basic was again, I thought that I was creating something really cool for people to use to run their computers. And what I did was I helped to funnel a few billions dollars into Bill Gates’ pocket. And Bill Gates, I know Bill Gates. He is not our friend. He is not out to do things that are good for humanity. He is out to do things that are good for Bill Gates. And Microsoft is not out to do things that are good for humanity but to do things that are good for Microsoft.

And the Gates’ foundation is — I mean on the surface here, it is this huge, giant philanthropical organization that’s doing a lot of stuff for the world. But if you dive down into it, you find that it’s — let me put it this way. Philanthropy is not the same as community. OK. Philanthropy is about an individual doing things for the good of the individual. It happens to be the good of the individual is what makes them feel good, namely; if it makes you feel good to stamp out malaria, the questions that are being asked are, is that where we should use our collective wealth? Our collective wealth, should it go towards stamping out malaria?

I mean nobody is asking that question because along comes this white knight who says, “I’m going to write a check for a billion dollars to stamp out malaria.” Everybody says, “That’s great.” On the surface of things, it looks really good. I don’t know if stamping out malaria is a good thing or not. On the surface, it sounds good but I don’t know if it’s a good thing. And what I do know is that it has not been considered decision by society.

And so my point is that I don’t want this philanthropy but what I’m saying is that philanthropy is not a replacement for community. OK? And what we’ve done is there’s — in my town of Petaluma, California, there’s a beautiful stone building that’s now the Historical Society but it used to be a library. And it says written in tiles on the floor in the entry way set in stone, it says, “Free to all.” OK? This was the community creating this thing. OK?

Nowadays, when I walk down the street in San Francisco, what I see set in tile, set in stone, I see in front of every office building, I see a brass plaque that says, “Right to pass revocable at any time.” OK?

What we’ve done is we have taken our common world, our community world of public parks and public libraries and we’ve said we’re willing to let those go away. And instead what we’ll have is we’ll have public spaces that are in fact private.

And the problem is, is that if you are an occupied protester, you can protest in a public park but you can’t protest on that right to pass revocable at any time. So, we’ve given up our collective spaces and accepted private spaces because as long as the owners of the private spaces are benevolently saying, “Yeah, you can gather here, we would not obstruct.” Then it’s the equivalent of a public space. It stands in as a public space but it is not a public space. It is not.

And the thing is, as we all know, is you know what they say is that — how does it go? To defend the First Amendment means that you defend people who say things that you don’t necessarily agree with or like. I mean it’s really easy to defend people who we were talking about mom and apple pie and beer and skittles.

But when people are talking about things that you don’t like that are semi unpleasant, the First Amendment says that they have a right to say that. Freedom of speech says they have the right. And you have to defend the right to say something semi unpleasant.

So, the libraries that we have today are pretty good but they’re not public. OK? They’re Google. OK? And the places where we gather are nice but they’re not Hyde Park. They’re not Central Park. They’re not Yellow Stone Park. They’re Facebook. OK?

So, Facebook is a wonderful place to get together until Mark Zuckerberg decides that he doesn’t want you to do whatever it is you’re doing. OK? Now, Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t decided that he like whatever you’re doing. So we’re all fat and happy. We’re pretty good.

But the fact is is that we have handed our rights to a private entity. OK? This is what I mean by philanthropy is not community. And Facebook which to all intents and purposes is a common carrier and should be a common carrier and should be owned by society and it should be ruled collectively. It’s not.

Now right now, it’s ruled benevolently but it’s still essentially a tyranny, a benevolent tyranny. And we all know what happens to benevolent tyrannies because that old saying is that, “Those who are ignorant of history are doomed to listen to boring pedants tell them about history.


Alan: That would be me.

James: Yesterday Alan we heard that call to — more on the ethic call to not take part in producing evil or bad things from a viewpoint of designers. But I know that some, at least on Twitter and the audience, we’re taking as a call to dismantle capitalism as a kind of a shoutout against capitalism as a global phenomenon.

Is that part of the message you were saying and you are saying now?

Alan: No. I’m not saying dismantle capitalism. I am not saying that. What I am saying is that capitalism is — the chief enabler of capitalism is the corporation. OK? And what I’m saying is that corporations do not have any mechanisms of internal restraint. OK? In order to be a good citizen, we now, I want everyone to stipulate this, there has to be restraint in the corporate world, in the capitalist world.

What we’ve done is we’ve created this Uber being. And we know there has to be laws and they’re mutually agreed upon laws. It’s not like some outside organization, some alien thing coming and saying, “We are going to restrict you.” No, it’s us saying, “In order for the common wealth, we’re all going to obey the same rules because it will all be better for all of us. OK?

So, if what you do is you dismantle that structure of regulations and you dismiss the third party, the independent third party maintainers of the regulations then what you’ve done is you have let companies go in and say, “Well, I’ll just kill you and take the short0term stuff.”

And what they came to do is not take it from — it’s like IBM doesn’t attack SIP. What IBM does is they look down and they slowly press their employees and they slowly press against their supply chain. And what SIP does is they don’t attack IBM. Instead, what they do is they look down and they slowly press the weakest target.

Well the thing is, is that in the world of coal mines and steel mills, there was this means of production. There was the capital and there was the land. There were the forests and the ore pits. But in the world of software, it’s just us. It’s just our brands.

So for the first time, we have more power and more authority. We’re like miners and lumberjacks of a higher order. But it’s the same thing is I am a capitalist. I want to make a lot of money. I am an independent businessman and I always have been. OK? And I’m a big believer in capitalism and I’m a big believer in free enterprise.

So, it turns out that there are people who don’t give a shit and who just say, “I want …” In a world of inequality, the more unequal it gets, the more the people who are at the top of the pyramid wanted to be more unequal because it’s pretty good for them and it’s a basic human trait.

And so, our world is turned upside down. There are few billionaires in this world who are actively working to dismantle even more regulations. And this is — I mean it’s like businesses want deregulation the way criminals want fewer policemen.

But the thing is, is I don’t want — the fairer your society is, the fewer police it needs. Because except for a few sociopaths, nobody wants to have a war, nobody wants to have to kill their neighbor in order to steal their shit in order to be able to survive himself. What they want is to live a nice quiet life and have kids and have a wife and do a little business and make a little money and do OK. That’s what we want.

And when it gets out of hand, people start blaming each other. And the fabric of society erodes. So — I mean you can go back and you can read about the struggles of the unions in the 1920s and stuff.

Today, it’s a strange — I’m not sure that I understand the difference because where we, the digital practitioners, are — I mean I don’t know. We’re not like coal miners of a hundred years ago. And yet in some ways we are. I can’t quite figure out the similarities and the differences. I mean this is a job for a social scientist I think or a political scientist.

But it’s clear that we have more power than we think we do or maybe I should say it differently is that every day we delay in exercising our power is another day that our power becomes weaker. That might be the bigger truth. I’m scared for this world. I mean I don’t want to be a Cassandra here. I don’t want to be saying it’s time to panic and — I mean there are guys in the States who build bonkers and stock them with canned food.

Per: Preppers.

Alan: Preppers. Yeah. I don’t want to do that. But what I want to say is the time is now. This is not a future thing. I mean climate change is not something that’s happening in the future. And the dismantling of the productions is not something that’s going to happen. It’s something that is happening and has happened. And so …

James: From an individual point of view, if we look at this this time last year, Lisa Welchman talked here. And she gave a talk where we she was encouraging us to — well, she was asking us, “Are you doing your best work right now?” And she was issuing a call to arms for us to stand up and do our best work and do shit that we actually believe in.

For me, it ties in, if we’re looking for this journey over the last kind of 12 months, I tie this into what you’re saying now as well is that that my work as an independent consultant is either I don’t necessarily want to work for every company as a consultant. I don’t want to work on every project. I actually will actively say, “No, that’s not something for me.”

Per: Say not to a gambling company, for example.

James: For example, yeah. Or a bank that’s doing really obnoxious interest rates for short-term loans because I don’t see how that helps society. That ties in to what you said is giving money to one of these pockets in a way that I feel is unethically sound and government are maybe not moving quick enough to keep that support framework in place to stop them doing this kind of evil or not evil but it’s kind of unethical.

Per: Yeah. And she also referenced the oil industry and the textile industry and the food industry. And that was the inspiration for my talk as well actually when I said that they didn’t start out as evil doers. But now, we have the opportunity to do the right thing but are we really doing the right thing? Are we on the right path right now in the same thing? Are you doing your best thing or are you doing something that just benefits KPIs that are made for making money for a corporation?

Alan: Well, I mean you’re just starting out, you take a job and it’s not the — you can’t expect too much from people who are just trying to get going. But on the other hand, our industry and our society is made up of thousands and thousands of tiny little decisions made by individuals every day.

And so, our role as leaders is to be constantly asking the question, is this the right thing to do? In the hopes that when people are faced with these tiny subtle little decisions, they will know which way to decide instead of saying, “Well, this would not hurt anybody.” You say, “Wait a minute. Let me look and see if it does hurt anybody.” And to move in the right direction.

James: Well, in that sense, it makes me really happy that your talk went that well because that means you will be giving it more and more people will hear it and just that will make a difference I think.

Alan: I hope so.

Per: Yeah.

James: Yeah, because we know we’re not going to be able to change the world overnight. I mean it’s a big place. It’s being around for a long time. But you’ve got to — even the biggest changes start with an individual and someone has that seed and plants it somewhere and it grows into something big. And I think if yesterday and with this podcast as well that we made someone reflect and think about what they’re doing and whether they feel right about what they’re doing and see whether doing something else maybe would make themselves and the world be a better place. And I hope they do it.

Alan: My son married a Danish girl and they moved to Denmark. And so, I’ve been spending a lot of quality time in Denmark. And I’m a Californian which is the greatest place in the world. I’ve lived in Silicon Valley and I’m in a kind of a financial bubble of prosperity. And so, I’m exposed to the best the United States has to offer. And then I go to Copenhagen. And I looked around and I — it’s different in such subtle ways.

My first thought is, well, if my son wants to be a software entrepreneur, maybe he needs to go to California. But then I see what my son wants to do is live a kind of a quiet Danish life and have kids and ride his bicycle to work. I go, “Wow!”

Per: Yeah.

Alan: I mean another one of my friends in San Francisco just got ran off the road and crashed his bike and wrecked his shoulder and stove in a couple of ribs. It’s really dangerous to ride bikes in San Francisco.

And another friend had the same thing happened to him in Australia.

And in Copenhagen, I just watch these bicycles go back and forth and I go, “This is amazing! It’s fabulous.” Rain or shine and they’re just — they figured it out. And I’m saying, for what he wants to do, this is — Copenhagen is the place to go.

Then I’m surfing the internet and I find this TED Talk and this — I think it he was Norwegian, this guy gives his talk. He says, “Where is the best place to become a millionaire?” And it turns out that the United States is way out of the top 10. But the top 3 are Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Then he says, “Well, where is the best place to become a billionaire?” Well, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. And he says, “Where is the best social mobility in the world?” And again, US is off the charts and Norway, Sweden, and Denmark.

And it’s like how — then he starts giving the answers because he says, “Where is the best place to become a millionaire?” And he went out and he asked a bunch of billionaires. And they said, “Well, you go to a place where there is low minimum wage and not much regulation.” Well, it turns out that low minimum wage and low regulation actually hurts the ability to create millionaires.

And you to go a place like Denmark where there is a high minimum wage and there’s high taxation and high regulation, it turns out that it creates a highly educated workforce. That is one that helps to balance the inequality which tends to wreck the internal dynamics of organizations which tends to generate wealth. It turns out that that the net is in everybody.

So, I drive around California — I drive around in Denmark and slowly I begin to realize that I don’t see beat up wrecked automobiles. I first noticed this, years ago in Germany because they have rules against it. Well, where I live in American, it’s like wall to wall wrecked automobile. People — they get smashed in. They drive around with duct tape in the windows. They keep driving them. You don’t see that in Denmark.

Then I realized that there are places where you see wrecked buildings in San Francisco, in the San Francisco Bay area and they just stay wrecked and they’re ugly and things get broken and they put cardboard over it and it stays that way.

And you don’t see that in Denmark. And slowly, you begin to realize that it’s really easy to say, “Sure, if you just want to live a quiet life and ride your bicycle to work and raise your kids then Copenhagen is a good place.” But then when you start to realize that, “Oh, but if you really want to be a successful entrepreneur and make a billion dollar company, Denmark is a nice place.” And then you start sitting back and you start questioning your fundamental assumptions about how the world works.

Thank you. You guys have given me a real opportunity to speak my mind and I appreciate it very much.

Per: Thank you so much for joining us and for letting us take up your time.

James: It’s our pleasure talking to you.

Per: It was.

Alan: Cool. Cool. We will change the world together.

Per: We will do.

Alan: Yeah.

Per: Thank you.

James: Thanks, Alan.

Alan: Thanks.

Per: So, this is a lot to digest everything that Alan is talking about. I think he is not finished thinking and I think I’m not finished thinking about what I’m hearing from him.

James: He has got — Alan has got to the point where realized something. The stuff where he say he doesn’t done that with working out the answers. This interview in itself formed part of his working out of the answers.

Per: Exactly.

James: And now though, we have become part of that working out because he put it part on to us, part of the burden is now being passed on to us through his keynote and through this interview.

Per: Yeah.

James: He has now reached out to us and saying well — to quote from the interview that our role as leaders is to be constantly asking the question. Is this the right thing to do?

Per: It is a really tough question because sometimes it does feel like you’re doing the right thing but you can’t always be confident because you don’t always have the big picture.

James: No. We mentioned our kind of I supposed, luxury, of being senior people in our profession and freelancers that we can reach — we’ve reached that point now where we can’t say no to some things. But one of the questions in the audience might come up after his talk.

Per: Yeah.

James: The question they sent, well, we need to work. I can’t just quit my job. And that’s a very, very good point, a good question.

Per: It is. That’s the most common thing people said when we talked about it as well. How can I just get up and quit my job? Does it work like that? And I guess …

James: I think actually, it does.

Per: In a sense it does.

James: Because when it boils down to it, you apply for jobs.

Per: Yeah.

James: Someone asks you, “Do you want to do this?” Now, OK, it’s not — we have economic cycles. Things go up and down. But what we’ve seen in recent years is that the growth of digital — the growth of what we work with is expanding at such a pace that even now during the periods of downtime, when the economy has cooled down a little bit, we’re not seeing the same kind of stopping off in our industry as we have maybe in the earlier years like the dot com boom in like 2000, 2001.

Per: Yeah.

James: And maybe even with the financial crash towards 2008 then it was kind of things died for a while. But we’re not seeing that quite as much during this — it’s a terrible time in different markets now. Things are growing. And I think that does give us — that does empower us with choice about jobs.

Per: It does.

James: If you don’t — so my take on that would be like, if you are currently working for a bank who does petty loans and you don’t feel that is contributing to society or to the world at large then maybe now you’ve gotten your trigger, your cue from Alan through this interview to look for another job. Maybe it’s time to move on.

Per: Could very well be. What I’m taking from this and what I’m relating to is that all these studies coming out about how people are dissatisfied and unhappy in the workplace, and for me, it’s all connected. It’s all connected. It’s all about either subconsciously realizing that you don’t know your place in the bigger picture, realizing that you are not contributing in the way that you would like to because that is what we do. We contribute as humans. And who am I contributing to? Am I contributing to the bottom line of a company or am I contributing to the better of society as a whole?

And that may seem like something heavy to put up on yourself but if we want to talk about well-being, which we’ve done a lot in the podcast as well, is you need to start taking control of your own well-being.

James: Yeah.

Per: And part of that is actually to think about, am I in the right place work-wise?

James: Am I doing good work?

Per: Yeah.

James: And am I happy with this organization at large?

Per: And I don’t think I have as gloomy an outlook as I feel that Alan had right now. I think that things are getting better simply because we are realizing stuff like this, simply because he is doing a talk like this and people are standing up and giving him standing ovation because they understand exactly what he means.

James: Yeah. We are realizing the power that we have as consumers, as designers and our powers as consumers who designed is like Alan has pointed out probably a lot more than we’ve realized.

Per: Yeah.

James: We’ve got a lot more responsibility.

Per: Yeah. And people took it — people in the audience seem to take it as he was saying that you’ve been doing it wrong. You need to make it right. And there’s this wonderful quote from his Q&A session, it’s not your fault but it’s your responsibility.

James: Excellent. Well, you can find show notes to this episode, of these past two episodes, parts of the Alan interview on UXPodcast.com. You can follow us pretty much everywhere @UXPodcast. If you aren’t already a subscriber, then please take this moment to add us to your podcast client on iTunes or whichever one you like or you can also like follow us on SoundCloud.

Per: Like you said, we are everywhere.

James: We are.

Per: Yeah. Remember to keep moving.

James: See you on the other side.


[End of transcript]

This is a transcript of a conversation between James Royal-Lawson, Per Axbom and Alan Cooper recorded for UX Podcast in May 2016. To hear more episodes visit uxpodcast.com or search for UX Podcast in your favourite podcast client.